As the Boston Bruins load the charter for their trip to Pittsburgh this weekend for the start of the NHL’s Eastern Conference Finals, goaltender Tuukka Rask might want to make sure he’s on the plane, too.
Not to say Rask hasn’t been solid – if not very, very good – through the first two rounds of the playoffs, but he hasn’t been outstanding. He’s given up his share of soft goals, and he hasn’t “stood on his head,” as the hockey beatniks like to say. Then again, he hasn’t had to. The Bruins have been so strong defensively – and the opposition so weak offensively – they’ve been able to get this far with Rask simply doing his job, which, in layman’s terms, is to stop more shots than he allows.
In fairness, Rask has turned away his share of potential backbreaking breakaway attempts, too (see, for example, Rask’s critical, third-period save in on a Matt Frattin breakaway in Game 7 of the Bruins’ amazing come-from-behind win against Toronto with the Leafs ahead 4-2 at the time), but he’s yet to carry Boston on his back, primarily because he hasn’t had to.
That’ll change this weekend when the Bruins open the conference finals in Pittsburgh against the top-seeded Penguins, who led the league in scoring during the regular season and have already scored nine more goals in the postseason than any other team still in the hunt. With wunderkind Sidney Crosby, arguably the league’s best player, Evgeni Malkin, last year’s league MVP, Norris Trophy finalist Kris Letang, and veteran Jerome Iginla, who, by the way, nixed a trade to Boston in March and decided to go to Pittsburgh instead, the Penguins will put Rask’s playoff mettle to the test.
These aren’t the Rangers, who, in addition to having no business being in the second round of the playoffs, were so horrid on the power play against Boston it cost fiery coach John Tortorella his job this week. The Penguins score and they score in bunches, which means Rask may need to channel his inner Tim Thomas, who, if you remember, pitched two Game 7 shutouts two years ago during the Bruins’ run to the Stanley Cup, including a 37-save effort in the clincher against Vancouver, making him the easy choice for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Rask doesn’t necessarily need to be that good, and, for the sake of revisionist history, let’s not forget Thomas wasn’t exactly “standing on his head” until the seventh game of the conference finals that year against Tampa Bay. Before that, he was as good as Rask has been through the first two rounds of this year’s playoff run.
Comparisons aside, the bottom line is it’s imperative Rask play his best against the high-powered Penguins, who won’t suffer from the same offensive ineptitude that doomed the Rangers and, to a lesser extent, the Leafs. They don’t need a Conn Smythe reincarnation of Thomas; they just need something slightly better than what they’ve gotten thus far.
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